Infanticide at Pomio: Edna and George Oakes

Prior to the Europeans coming to New Britain, infanticide was practiced in most of the islands. In 1934, Edna was born at Malalia Methodist Mission station near Cape Hoskins on the north coast of New Britain together with her twin sister, Nancy. Because her parents knew that the people killed off all except the first born in multiple births, both Edna and Nancy were kept out of sight for the first few months of their lives on the Mission station. After 3 months, Edna’s father, Rev. Brawn, told his head teacher that Marama had had two babies. The teacher replied, “We knew, because two of everything went in and two of everything came out!”

In 1959, we were posted to Pomio, on the south coast of New Britain, almost opposite Cape Hoskins. In our first years at Pomio, there were no multiple births seen. In late 1961 George heard that in a village near Cape Orford, a woman had given birth to twins and had immediately killed the second born and threw its body into the sea. Later, when the first born would not stop crying she killed it too! George immediately went in the workboat up the Mengen coast to the village where he conducted an investigation and then brought the woman and her husband back to Pomio to await a District Court to be conducted by the Assistant District Officer. At the District Court the case was referred to the Supreme Court.

In April, 1962, the Supreme Court case was held in Rabaul and George attended as interpreter. The judge committed her for Infanticide and asked George what should be done. He suggested to His Honour that she should serve a short sentence at Pomio so it could be a lesson to other women in the Pomio area. The judge gave her 7 months to be served at the Pomio Corrective Institute. At Pomio, although she was a prisoner, she was allowed considerable freedom. Her husband was also at
Pomio. Before she finished her term she was pregnant again. At the end of her term she and her husband moved back to their village: there were no hard feelings.

This case certainly had an effect in the area. A month after her court case, a woman in a nearby village to Pomio gave birth to triplets. Rain was steadily falling. This is the story of what happened as Edna wrote at the time in a letter to her mother in
Sydney.

The meri had the babies in the village only one hours walk from the hospital. About 3 am on Friday she walked to the hospital and people carried the babies in too but not wrapped up. The mother died at 9.30 am of a retained placenta. As I was a teacher in the local school the school children told me, “wanpela meri emi karim tripela pikanini wantaim, tru misus!” [a woman has had triplets… this is true!] so I went down to have a look at them about 3 pm after school. The first born Michel (the medical assistant) thought was a blue baby because it was plum coloured, the others were pale.

We have no Infant Welfare Nurses here, only doctor boys, and Michel is busy so I said I would take them with a young meri to help me with them. We sent for Denise’s basket (our daughter) and wrapped them in a nappy each then a blanket overall. Michel only gave them a 10% chance of survival. It was wet but we hurried up the hill and immediately put hot water bottles around them and lit a Tilly lamp to heat the room. I then sat down to make three bonnets and jackets for them and gosh they looked cute, 3 in a row. We could not get them warm until about 9 pm. I thought then we would be lucky to pull them through. Do you know where I got the clothes idea from? I remember the ones you kept that you had made for us (Edna and Nancy). I know now what you must have gone through 27 years ago. Luckily, it was the weekend so I was able to give them my undivided attention or at least as much as Wesley allowed me to. George was good with helping with them, because I thought if I could get them past three days they might have a chance and I would be able to give attention to Wesley. I suppose it was mean to ignore my own child but I wanted to save them.

I got out Dr Spock and the mothercraft book Nancy gave me and we rigged up a covered basket, set it on a bed under a mosquito net. We fed then milk drop by drop by an eye dropper. We did everything as carefully as possible, masks for all attending the babies and washing hands. The first born just stopped breathing. I was changing hot water bottles every hour and checking every quarter hour, and found her dead–her little body was very warm so we sent for a stethoscope but Lepan, the doctor boy, said she was dead. We had been giving them oxygen one hour on and one hour off all day too!

The first one had been called Rosa, so when she died we called up the catechist to “wash” [christen] the others, one named Margaret (Denise’s second name) and the other Michelle (after Michel, the medical assistant).

Margaret started having difficulty in her breathing. I gave her oxygen for an hour again and she seemed to pick up. I went for a cup of tea and when I went back she had gone. Michelle’s little body was burning so we took her temperature and it read 105 deg. I sent immediately to Michel and a doctor boy came up and gave her a chloroquin injection and today her temperature is 100 deg.

(At 2.30pm) Our little Michelle is dying and I cannot help her. Her temp went up again at 12 noon to 105.2 deg and a doctor boy gave her another injection but now it is only a matter of time. The other two died peacefully but this little one is struggling to stay alive. I have been giving her oxygen continually since 12.30 but it
does not seem to be helping her much. I have kept the doctor boy here to help me with the oxygen. We rigged up a makeshift oxygen tent with plastic and blankets.

(At 7.30pm) Little Michelle died about quarter to five this afternoon. I put her back into the basket and she seemed peaceful. I checked every quarter hour on her. I had Michelle on my lap for a while giving her oxygen and her little hand came out and clutched my finger. The meri who had been helping me went with Peter (a workboy) to the hospital and found a man going to Kes who took the body home.

Julius, the wash boy, wanted to know why the 4 chickens I have by the stove should survive and not the babies. Golly, it has been an experience to me that not many people would get. Now I am going to have a good shower and a good sleep.

While the above was taking place there was a constant stream of people coming to our place wanting to know how the babies were going. They stood around on the verandah waiting for news.

Michel, the medical assistant, would try and get all the mothers-to-be to come to the hospital and have lots of vitamins before their babies were born, but this meri would not come in.If she had come, the triple birth would have been picked up.

After these cases many multiple births were noted in the area. When we left Pomio in October 1963, there were at least one set of triplets and over 10 sets of twins in the area.

We hope the practice of infanticide in much of New Britain has now stopped.

 

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